This is the first post in a series taken from Robert Bishop's scholarly essay "Recovering the Doctrine of Creation: A Theological View of Science", which can be downloaded here.
In teaching at an evangelical liberal arts college that holds firmly to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, I find most of my students think the biblical doctrine of creation (DoC) is limited to two points: (1) God created out of nothing (ex nihilo) and (2) God created the world in six days (whatever they think “days” is supposed to mean!). My students are fairly representative of contemporary evangelicals’ understanding of the DoC. This contemporary understanding is problematic, however, because it is much narrower than the full doctrine as it was developed by the Patristic fathers. Given that the DoC is perhaps one of the most helpful pieces of theology for thinking about science, it’s worthwhile recovering it in all its glory. What follows over the next few parts of this blog is a brief tour through the elements of this amazing doctrine.
Two preliminary comments to get started. First, we have a tendency to cut up doctrines into chunks like the DoC, the doctrine of providence, the doctrine of salvation, the doctrine of eschatology, etc. Nevertheless, we need to realize that this is somewhat artificial on our part as we strive to understand one grand doctrine of God and His activity. All of these doctrines interpenetrate and inform each other as can be seen in what follows (e.g. much of God’s ongoing work of creation is continuous with His providence in creation; likewise, if God hadn’t created, there would be no providence, salvation or sanctification).
Second, all of the elements composing the DoC have been hard fought, won and then lost over and over in the history of Christian thought. If many of the following elements seem surprising or new to you, that’s largely because since the eighteenth century the DoC has suffered significant decline such that contemporary Christians usually only have a very atrophied version of the doctrine in mind when they think about creation, God’s work in creation, and science.1
Let’s start with the creator/creature distinction, something that is familiar to us and that we recognize as part of the DoC when we think about it. This distinction actually has some important yet often missed implications. For example, the distinction implies that God intends for creation to be something different from rather than similar to Him. God didn’t make creation with the same infinite being or nature as Himself. Creation’s being distinct from God implies it is to be distinctly itself, literally to become uniquely what God calls it to be in Christ.
Moreover, the creator/creature distinction implies that all of creation is valued—it has the kind of nature and functionality God intended it to have. After all, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31), is a proclamation of His valuing all of creation. The Hebrew term in Genesis 1 and 2, tob, often translated as “good,” has a variety of meanings in different contexts including moral goodness and craftsmanship. However, it is commonly used in the OT in the sense of functioning properly. For example, “It is not good [tob] for the human [adam] to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him” (Gen. 2:18). The man isn’t fully functioning without a sustainer appropriate to his created nature. So the repeating refrains of “good” in Genesis 1 and 2 primarily mean value, as in properly functioning or working as intended, fulfilling assigned purposes. From the beginning, God is telling us that creation does—and will do—what He intends.
Moreover, we see God’s valuation of creation especially in Jesus’ incarnation: what higher affirmation could there be of the value of the material order than the second person of the Trinity taking on the material nature of creation and inhabiting its order, an order that Jesus Himself established and blessed in the beginning?
A final implication of the creator/creature distinction is that creation has what theologians call contingent rationality. Creation is contingent in two senses: (1) it is utterly dependent on God such that if Christ ceased sustaining creation it would disappear instantly and (2) God could have made any kind of creation He wanted but chose to make this particular creation. God didn’t need or have to create anything. He was under no compulsion or necessity. Rather, being a loving communion of three persons, out of the overflow of that love God brought into existence a particular kind of creation for His glory and for its own sake. Furthermore, creation has its own rationality, its own particular order, structure and functionality, which is at least partially intelligible to us.
The creator/creature distinction has implications for science as well. First, since creation is so valuable to God, its study is a worthwhile human activity. Second, the contingent rationality of the created order is what science seeks to uncover and understand (whether or not scientists realize that both this order and its intelligibility are good gifts from God).
Ex Nihilo Creation
That creation was made ex nihilo—literally out of absolute nothing—is implied by the creator/creature distinction. The Patristic fathers inferred the ex nihilo nature of creation from this distinction and various passages like John 1:1-3, 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:16, Heb. 11:3, Rev. 4:11 in their struggle with ancient Greek natural philosophy (the latter maintained that matter was eternal). This element of the DoC was not easy to achieve and required the Patristics to “think away” what was false from the Greek philosophical ideas that so permeated their world and their education.
The theological significance of ex nihilo creation is hard to overestimate. For one thing it protects God’s sovereignty showing us that all things in creation are subject to Him. Moreover, it distinguishes God’s creative activity from all other religious creation stories. There is no pre-existent matter giving rise to divinities as in the other ancient Near East creation accounts. Creation is pictured as originating in covenantal love (Jer. 33:25) rather than conflicts among deities. God is never once seen to be struggling to shape recalcitrant matter (a constant theme in other ancient Near East creation accounts).
Another important implication of ex nihilo creation is that there can be no creation out of nothing without purpose. Creation was no accident on God’s part. He has reasons for what He’s doing, one of which is for creation to become what God destines it to be in Christ (more in part 3).
Finally, a creation made out of nothing is particularly fragile! Its tendency is to always fall back into nothing meaning that creation requires God’s constant preserving care. Here, there is a clear connection between God’s creating out of nothing and His general providence sustaining the being and order of creation.
Sovereignty in Creation
God’s sovereignty in creation contrasts with all the ancient creation myths and cosmologies, where divinities are always struggling with each other and with recalcitrant matter. Instead, the Bible pictures God as in control of all things: “See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power and his arm rules for Him” (Is. 40:10a), “He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in” (Is. 40:22b), and
Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all (I Chron. 29: 11-12a).
From Genesis 1 to Revelations 22, God is king and ruler over all! One of the most relevant implications of this for thinking about science: God rules over all natural processes! Therefore, anything a scientist says about processes in creation can only be describing something that is sustained by God and subject to His sovereignty.
1. Although not his main theme, James Turner’s masterful history, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, Johns Hopkins University Press (1986), reveals much of the DoC’s decline during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.